ESPN has a propensity of making anything new into a Big Deal, so it should come as no surprise the highly-trafficked homepage of the sports media empire boasted a graphic counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until Bill Simmons launched his latest pet-project, Grantland. Lest we forget, this is the same conglomerate which brought The Heat Index into our lives before Miami had entered training camp, as well as the perpetrators who plastered 'Who's Now?' across their entire jurisdiction a few short years ago. Grantland.com means a lot to the Sports Guy, and it means a lot to people foolish enough to try to make their living by writing on the Internet -- both established and aspiring. It should come as no surprise that this launch -- which happened today, a few hours ago -- is being given the spectacle treatment by ESPN. Words may never carry the sex appeal of pictures or moving pictures, but it hasn't stopped ESPN from busting out all the stops to promote the latest offshoot of their towering brand.
As Grantland slowly unveiled its lineup and vision, the hype started to reach a deafening pitch. The apex came last week as Grantland proudly trotted out its developing roster via Twitter, just as Jonathan Mahler's 4,500 word examination of all things Simmons and Grantland hit the New York Times. Mahler's piece paints an honest portrait of Simmons -- from the cringe-worthy 'Classic Sports Guy' J.J. Barea joke to the Simmons' candid "I’m not sure I would do it again" assessment, it's hard not to perceive this launch as the most public moment of Simmons' usually confidential life. Even more so than "30 For 30", this is Simmons' baby. While it's hard to believe the creative vision is entirely his after seeing the roster --- does anyone really think Simmons had heard of Hipster Runoff a year ago? -- it's still the Sports Guy with the Editor-in-Chief title, the Sports Guy who pushed to get all of these fantastic writers better paying jobs, the Sports Guy's neck on the line.
Let's discuss that roster for a second: despite a few notable names absent (Craggs, Shoals), this collection of talent is damn impressive. So much so, in fact, that it has to lead one to wonder who was really behind the controls. Jay Caspian Kang has Free Darko ties and was the man behind The Awl's awe-inspiring diva investigation last fall. Katie Baker has been killing it at Deadspin (amongst other places) for some time. It's hard to find a more respected name in the game than Esquire's Chris Jones. Molly Lambert built a cult at This Recording and figured out that Britney Spears is an anagram for "Presbyterians". If that doesn't spell out 'genius', what does? And, oh yes, having Malcolm Gladwell and Chuck Klosterman -- Simmons' two favorite foils -- attached likely won't hurt the site's street cred or page views, either.
Grantland opened its doors this afternoon with four pieces: a welcome note from the Editor-in-Chief, a Klosterman essay on a North Dakota junior college basketball game from the late 80s, Jones on life on an MLB beat, and a reality TV fantasy league outlook (POP CULTURE) from frequent BS Report guest Dave Jacoby.
Within minutes of clicking on Simmons' opening salvo, you'll notice a few things: there are footnotes, there's swearing, talk of an unhip band, and a fart joke in the first paragraph. If there were worries that Grantland will be more ESPN than Bill Simmons, those concerns likely softened after spending a few minutes on the actual site. This thing has Simmons plastered across its forehead -- figuratively and literally.
Grantland comes at an interesting time for Simmons, a man unquestionably sitting atop his profession with a mile-long gap to his closest peer. His "Book of Basketball" reached the top of the New York Times Best Seller's list, his podcast is among the most listened to on iTunes, his "30 For 30" series has been lauded from every corner, his Twitter account is among the most popular on the Web. Grantland is something entirely different for Simmons, though. After years of taking 'world's first blogger' as a slur, Simmons now appears to be embracing his massive influence on virtually every young sportswriter alive. To borrow the title of one of the nine movies he's ever seen, he's "The Godfather" to the current generation of think-piecers. Only now, he's not running away from it.
Indeed, Simmons' role as mentor could perhaps be the final step of his career trajectory. Simmons may be more beloved than ever, but his fastball has lost a few miles per hour. The Sports Guy was a game-changer at his inception, but there are more interesting, engaging writers on the Internet now. Bill Simmons just happened to give a bunch of them a bigger platform and a bigger paycheck. While the sports blogosphere -- that's still a term, right? -- has treated the launch of Grantland with predictable snark, it's hard to see how this is a bad thing from any angle. The content will be high quality, the corporate overlords apparently will be kept at an arm's length, and some of the Web's brightest minds now get to show-off for more than just their peers.
The idea of Grantland -- think-piece on top of think-piece on top of think-piece -- isn't exactly revolutionary, but its execution potentially could be. The Internet is a more enlightening place today than it was yesterday. Grantland's longevity and legacy now rests on its founder to do what he's done as well as anyone: shift, adapt, and innovate.
Ricky O'Donnell is the founder and editor of the Chicago sports blog Tremendous Upside Potential, and a new daily contributor to SB Nation Chicago. He's read a few Bill Simmons columns in his day.